Back from Havana.
There is so much I think and feel about the trip, but few words. It’s partly about being in a place where the living is different, and finding no way to communicate deeply about it with the people there. Of course it is. It’s difficult to talk in a deep way with neighbours and co-workers and friends lots of the time - about how they live, what they feel about their community and government, the quality of life.
But even when it seemed possible, and respectful, to ask a probing question, it was difficult – because of language, because of time, because I know myself to be instantly on the other side of many divides. And maybe it’s not so that every Cuban I encountered saw me was a foreigner, as someone with different ways, values, priorities, a different kind of importance, a different kind of nuisance. But there were all the barriers inside my own head: What’s someone going to ask me to give them, or buy from them? What’s the Spanish word for this? Am I being friendly, unfriendly, rude, too easy? Would it be okay to ask...?
I tried speaking and responding to almost everyone, and I tried being much less responsive, which meant ignoring a lot of the calls and questions: Taxi? Where you from? Do you want cigars? But looking back, I see I was mostly on the receptive end of exchanges, not getting in lots of questions myself. And when I did, there was the language, the time and the circumstances.And still, good connections were made – with wonderful Tamara in our hotel, helping us negotiate with cabbies and travel agency reps, and Alex, the brother who approached us in the square and whom we encountered every other day, who coaxed us about going to his club, and to one of the Paladors – the private kitchens that serve up meals, and Felipe, the pedi-cab rider who warned us against police and walking in certain sections after dark. I had a brief chat with Ramses Rodriguez, the drummer, and chats with a few other tourists, from Canada, the US, Denmark, Iran.
But the really social part of being on vacation was being with Ponczka, my Bardzo, my Running Buddy, my Woman, my Love, My Marzena, my Sweet Hamburguesa (her latest nickname, Spanish for hamburger – with the “h” silent). We have such a good time together I can hardly get over it. We walked up and down, though mostly in Veija Habana – the Old Towne. We saw some of Centro, and the Jazz clubs were both in Vedano, and we did the double-decker bus tour, but it was mostly between the water and the main drag that Includes, Centro Park, the Telegrafo Hotel, where we spent our first night, the Capitolio and the Opera House.
Ponczka is my perfect travel companion. We make a nice pace together. And we manage to balance her desire to plan every step of our itinerary against my desire to roam aimlessly, her desire to snap photos with mine to sit with a coffee on a patio, my want of jazz, hers of elegant old buildings.
We ate well and simply. We’d heard and read that the food options were poor in Havana, but there was really fresh and tasty fish everywhere, and the prices – even in the Tourist Pecos – were very reasonable. And the flip side of food not being a central attraction is that I actually lost weight during a vacation.
There’s one thing that irks me, and that has led to a new commitment when travelling in less developed countries from now on. No more bargaining with artists. It becomes kind of an irresistible habit to bargain when you know you’re in an area designed to separate tourists from as much of their money as possible, especially after you discover that vendors will usually snap up an offer of half, as though they want to finish the transaction before you change your mind.
But even at the prices asked for, the art – and there was lots of good art in the tiny galleries in doorways and former store rooms – comes really cheaply. Since getting back home the other day, as we build and mount frames for the canvases we brought, I know that we got by far the better end of the art transactions. Ponczka feels this too, though, as a painter who herself works shows where she has to fend off low offers, she’s much more tenacious a bargainer than I am.
But we realize that it would be a huge support to these artists we meet and admire, if we paid them according the valuation their work would have in our market, rather than in theirs. So that’s what we’ve resolved to do. When we see art in less developed areas, and appreciate it as art – not merely quickly produced copy work – we will pay for art, and feel more deserving of what hangs on our walls.